Who's watching over science?

July 27, 2001

A body is needed to remove the risk of pointing out unethical behaviour, say Herbert Arst and Mark Caddick.

Suppose while reading a scientific publication you spot data that you have good reason to believe are a complete fabrication, a deliberate distortion or a misquotation of the scientific literature. Should you tolerate dishonesty and unethical behaviour and let the matter drop? Sadly, probably, yes.

The risks involved in reporting scientific misconduct discourage individuals and institutions from reporting and acting to address it. Most professions have a body able to deal with professional misconduct so as to protect their integrity and public standing. This allows suspected misconduct to be reported in private - avoiding the risk of legal action for defamation - until it has been appropriately investigated. For scientists in the United Kingdom this is not the case.

The absence of such an organisation has led funding bodies to issue guidelines on good scientific practice. However, the actual mechanisms are left to the discretion of individual employing institutions with no monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance and, crucially, no legal protection.

Whether an employer who received allegations of misconduct would act impartially, undertake a thorough investigation and act appropriately is questionable. What is not in doubt is that making concerns known to an employer or the relevant funding body could be a perilous act. The risks involved vary depending on the nature of the offence, the quality of evidence and, perhaps most arbitrarily, who employs you.

There is, of course, little point in coming forward with allegations of scientific misconduct if there is scant prospect that they will be acted upon. Given UK defamation law - where, unlike in the United States, the onus falls on the accuser to prove that the allegations are true - editors and institutional authorities will be hesitant to act on such allegations, fearful of adverse publicity and potential financial loss.

Large awards (and costs) in libel cases deter institutions and individuals from taking further action. For many scientists, the money, time and stress would mean risking everything. Consequently, scientific misconduct festers.

Many scientists benefit from public funds. The public therefore has a legitimate interest in scientific probity. In the current climate where the public is becoming increasingly distrustful of science, this is especially important.

These issues could be addressed by the creation of an independent body dedicated to ensuring scientific integrity that would:

* Have an enforceable set of rules
* Offer protection for those making accusations in good faith
* Have resources and powers to conduct or oversee investigations
* Ensure that conclusions of misconduct are reported and acted upon.

If receipt of research funding, taking up a post in an academic institution, or the publication of work were dependent on acceptance of the authority of such a body, it would be possible for it to receive and impartially investigate complaints and act on any significant instance of misconduct. This would relieve universities and other employers from the iniquitous position of investigating their own staff, although they would be expected to assist with investigations and act upon their conclusions. Malicious accusations could arise, but would not damage the credibility of the accused scientist, as an investigation would lead to their exoneration and those who brought such an accusation could themselves be sanctioned.

The organisation should not be unduly bureaucratic or obtrusive and investigations should only be launched on the basis of substantial evidence. Individuals could report evidence of suspected misconduct with a reasonable belief that the case would be investigated, while not endangering their own livelihood. Most importantly, laws designed to protect the innocent would no longer protect those engaged in misconduct.

Herbert Arst is professor of microbial genetics at Imperial College and Mark Caddick is a senior lecturer in biological sciences at the University of Liverpool. Details: www.liv.ac.uk/sd21/thes.html

Thanks to solicitors Nicholson, Graham & Jones and Davies Wallis Foyster.

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